by Stephanie Rochelle Redd
Note: The following was originally published on January 18, 2015, via my now-defunct personal website, StephanieRochelleRedd.com. Four years later, I still count this piece – and my process of finding peace with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s humanness – all joy.
I learned that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer when I was 15 years old. If my memory serves me correctly, I was watching a documentary about him at home when I heard the narrator casually mention the tidbit; something about the FBI recording his phone calls and threatening to expose his conversations with random women – about random sexual rendezvous – to the masses.
I immediately went into a catatonic state. I can recall sitting there, staring through the television while the documentary continued, not hearing another word that was being said.
What the…? I mouthed silently.
I could then feel myself begin to panic. My heartbeat quickened and I felt and heard its thumping pulse in my ears.
“What the…” I finally uttered aloud.
As the reality of what I had heard started to mesh with the reality of that present moment, my panic steadily morphed into outrage, with the target of my outrage placed squarely on Martin.
I was way more incensed by his infidelities than the FBI’s. I already had suspicions about the FBI’s dubious nature. But in all of the 15 years that I had lived up to that point and in all of the conversations, speeches, sermons, books, essays, movies and lesson plans I heard, watched and read regarding Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I never had any suspicions about him, least of which, regarding his dubious extramarital-affair nature.
Somebody was going to have to tell me something. And at that time, my 15-year-old self looked to my World History teacher to be that somebody.
“It’s true,” he said solemnly.
He wore the look of a father who had just told his beloved, naive daughter that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were all just mere figments of corporate imagination. In return, I wore the look of a daughter whose beloved and naive world had just been shattered into a million jagged pieces.
“That’s the danger of putting people on pedestals,” he continued slowly. “We’re only humans. He was only human.”
He was not human! He was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! I wanted to protest.
However, my brain had already signaled my mouth to close and would not give it the signal to open again. My teacher and I exchanged sad glances once more before I turned and teetered back to my desk, collapsing in my chair. I just sat there, dazed and quietly dumbfounded by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s deafening humanness.
In the 16 years since my stark revelation that Martin “was only human,” I’ve been able to contain my righteous indignation about his ‘shalling’ of the seventh commandment–contain it, not forget it. Often, I’ve noticed that when someone would mention his name in my presence with the same super-human air that I, too, had granted him long ago, I would find my eyebrows slightly furrowed and my arms loosely crossed.
He was only human, I would say to the person telepathically, trying to balance reason with the remnants of my disillusionment.
But then when I got word of the release of the movie “Selma,” I could feel my container of indignation cracking under 16 years worth of teeming cynical pressure.
Is this movie going to paint him as super-human? I asked myself rhetorically. Will it give him wings like Red Bull and set up, yet, another generation of youth to believe in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.- fairy?
Though I originally assumed the answer to these questions to be “yes,” I won’t truly know if I don’t go see the movie, which (((breathing deeply))) is what I intend to do…tomorrow.
Yes, I could go on and on and moan and groan about how disappointed I felt – and feel – about the reality of Martin’s humanness. But in reality, his humanness is what makes his story that much more real and accessible to other humans who also have a penchant for dreaming and a predilection for scheming. (That would be me.) So, I say:
Cheers to you, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on fulfilling your legendary personal legend. And props to you, Martin, for keeping it real.
*Stevie Wonder voice* Happy Bearthday to you💚